The Douglas-Hamilton family (BBC Natural History)
Interview 16 March

How to raise a young family in an African safari camp

TV presenter and conservationist Saba Douglas-Hamilton reveals the challenges and rewards of bringing up children in Kenya's spectacular Samburu region

This Wild Life follows the remarkable life of Saba Douglas-Hamilton and her family as they run a safari camp and conservation charity in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve. Saba talks to Wanderlust about the challenges of working and raising kids amongst one of Africa’s largest free-roaming populations of elephants, in a stunning landscape full of hidden dangers...

You grew up on the savannahs of East Africa. Did that influence your decision to raise your kids there? What did you get out of it that you hope your kids do as well?

I think if you grow up being exposed to very different environments it has a profound effect on you. Most importantly it helps you to see beyond your immediate neighbourhood, and to have a curiosity about the world.  

Growing up among people of very different cultures also teaches you to be more fluent in different ways of life and thinking – and that perhaps is the most important thing of all – to have a perspective outside of the 'Western bubble'.

My sister and I have been enchanted by the Samburu ecosystem in north Kenya ever since we were little girls, as our parents used to take us on camel safaris led by Samburu warriors – walking through the bush for extended periods and having all sorts of adventures. We fell in love with the Samburu people and their way of life.  

[My husband] Frank and I wanted our kids to experience bush living properly, so taking the decision for me to run Elephant Watch Camp was relatively easy as Frank was already heavily involved in Samburu National Reserve through Save the Elephants.

Was it a difficult decision to take over this camp with a young family in tow?

Not really. I was going a bit mad being a 'mum in the suburbs', especially after the twins were born. My life pre-kids was very adventurous and mostly in wild places, as was my husband’s, so we were both pining for a bit of wilderness. Luckily, a lot of things aligned to make it possible to escape urban life and head up into the wild to Elephant Watch Camp.

What has been the most difficult part of the experience?

Trying to juggle the very high standards of Elephant Watch Camp – a luxury tented safari lodge that specialises in all things wildlife and elephants – to exceed the expectations of our guests whenever possible, along with the demands of our kids, the day to day challenges of running a camp in a remote location, the needs of my husband and those of a BBC television crew (while they were there), was tough!  Sometimes I felt I was being pulled in five directions by wild horses!

Your kids are still young. Do you envisage things changing as they get older? Will they be home-schooled, for example?

We’ll have to see how it goes – for the moment we are dealing with school by being quite nomadic. If we stay here more permanently, we'll probably get a tutor for a few years.  

Boarding school is not an option until the kids are at least 15.  I had a miserable experience of it myself at 13 – which I think is too young – so I wouldn't want our kids to go through the same. When I was 16 I went to an amazing international college in Wales – Atlantic College – where I had the time of my life.  So sometime around then would be fine.

Family life in the bush: How is it different from ‘normal’ family life? How is the same?

Family life in Samburu is pretty similar to normal life elsewhere. You have to make meals, brush teeth, figure out day-care, read bedtime stories, and convince the kids to have a bath! They still say the food is yucky, and yowl at us when they’re annoyed. It’s just set in a slightly different context. While our kids have no problems feeding warthogs or giraffes by hand but they are absolutely terrified of dogs! And rather than sing English nursery rhymes in nursery school, in Samburu they learn a wonderful array of African songs and games or play chase, with Mporian [our 'warrior babysitter'] being a lion.  

On the face of it, you are raising your children in what they consider a ‘dangerous’ environment. Do you feel that life in the ‘real world’ is just as dangerous for kids?

I feel much safer raising my kids in Samburu National Reserve than I do in urban Nairobi. And when we go to a big city like London, it’s mayhem as they have no idea how to behave on pavements or about the dangers of traffic. So, depending on where you are raised, you either learn to be street-wise or bush-wise. What’s important is to know a bit about both. 

So far we’ve managed to avoid iPads, internet and even TV, but when they go to friends’ houses in Nairobi they get to experience them there. I think a little exposure is fine, but I am hugely wary of the pitfalls of having one’s nose in a screen all day long. At the moment, thankfully, they are caught up in the magical world of books and I see in them the same happy expectation that I had as a child whenever I opened up a new story. TV was never on offer when I was a kid and to this day we don’t have one – in fact, even when we’re staying somewhere with a TV we rarely think of switching it on. 

Inevitably we’ll have to deal with internet someday, but I hope the kids will be grounded enough by then and more interested in what’s going on outside in the wider world than the intrigues of a chat room.

Your kids have a Samburu warrior as a babysitter, armed with a machete, spear and slingshot. What is the most dangerous situation he has saved them from?

It became clear quite rapidly that we needed a Ninja-nanny to keep an eye on the kids while I was busy working. Luckily, Mporian, a Samburu warrior who is an old friend of mine, had recently moved his nomadic boma (settlement/homestead) to just across the river from Camp and was looking for work. He is amazingly patient with the kids, and they love him to bits.

The most obvious danger is stepping on snakes or scorpions – which can be fatal for children – so although we rarely see them it’s important to always be aware that they are present. Prevention is mostly about looking where you’re putting your feet (being aware that a snake with a raised hood can spit in your eyes) and knocking out shoes before putting them on in the morning. 

The other danger is when there are elephants in Camp, which is quite a common occurrence – especially when the Acacia trees are in seed. Despite their size, elephants can disappear completely in rather innocuous looking bushes… so you must always have your wits about you. Funny smells, sounds, an unusual silence… fresh footprints.  

One of the bulls who particularly likes camp is called Sarara – he’s really beautiful, enormous, but also quite feisty.  He’s convinced it’s his patch and we are all trespassers. I think the most dangerous situation any of the kids got in to was when Mayian (one of the twins and rather stubborn) was stomping along looking at her feet – having disobeyed everyone to come and find me – and walked straight into Sarara’s backside. When she saw his feet then looked up she got the most terrible fright. He swung around and shook his head at her, but luckily by then Mporian, who was hot on her tail, had managed to snatch her to safety. 

What do your kids get out of it? Is there anything you think they are missing out on?

Living amongst Samburu nomads is the most incredible education for the kids – they absorb absolutely everything they see and hear, and just by living in the bush are learning all about the animals, bugs and birds, what they eat, where to find them, what their footprints or dung looks like, where they nest, how to identify their songs. 

I’m constantly surprised by what comes out of their mouths. All of the kids speak Kiswahili (it’s actually their preferred language amongst themselves) but the twins (now 3) also understand Samburu and will happily translate for me. In fact, someone very naughty has taught them to swear like troopers in Kisamburu, which has all of the warriors rolling on the floor, but luckily none of us know what they are saying! Selkie (5) is the most amazing little guide, explaining to our guests how to sex elephants by looking at the shape of their foreheads, or where the hornbills make their nests and why. 

We didn’t bring many toys with us, so like Samburu kids they started making their own.  Mainly wrapping up the great sausage-like seeds from the Kigelia trees to use as dolls.  We then drew some faces on them to make them more lovable.

It can get a bit lonely at times as the Samburu manyattas are all outside the reserve so they don't often have other kids to play with (unless guests bring kids). When the river is low enough to wade across with Mporian, they go to his homestead – which they love – to play with the kids and milk the goats. If guests' children come to stay in camp the kids get hugely excited, and form rapid and strong attachments. There’s a fair amount of heartbreak when they have to say goodbye.

What advice for people thinking of doing something similar with their kids?

Life is very short, but sadly this often only comes home to us when we experience the awful finality of death with the loss of someone we love. So my advice is to live your dreams now, no matter how scary it might seem to take the first step. It’s something I try to remind myself of every day because we all fall into the trap of taking the easiest (laziest) route. Other than that, it’s mostly about having a supportive and loving family environment. If kids feel secure and happy, they can survive almost anything.

For more information about Elephant Watch Camp, visit the official website. To donate to Save the Elephants, text ELEP33 £5 to 70070 or visit www.savetheelephants.org